February 7, 2023

“Have you had narrow escapes, close calls?” Me?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Yes, I have.  Several. Scary close calls.

This came up when I spotted a poster on a bulletin board.  Glance at the photo.

Interesting, don’t you think?

That outfit called The Reboot was announcing its upcoming meeting. A strange name, The Reboot,  but that wasn’t explained. The Reboot is all about what it calls ““Storytelling Re-Imagined.”

The Reboot has been around for a year but this was the first I heard of it.

Its storytelling theme changes every month. For May it would be “Razor’s Edge. True stories  would be told,  without notes, of narrow escapes, close calls, flirting with disaster, taunting fate, and laughing in the face of danger!”

Anybody wanting to tell a story could send in an email saying so.

Well, definitely I’ve had narrow escapes and close calls. But I never laughed in the face of them. No, sir. Too scared!

I was fascinated. The Reboot is a club, well sort of. The storytellers – all amateurs– stand up and tell stories. Applause is all they get for it. Admission is free.  You can go once or every month.

It meets every third Friday of the month at the Top Dog Coffee Bar on Main Street from7 to 9 p.m. A friend told me they get a full house every time. “John, better get there at quarter of!

Hey, maybe the Top Dog hosts it for the PR value of it and the business it generates.

I read the poster one more time. I can do that!  I decided on the spot. I shot off an email saying to count me in.  But it turned out I was one volunteer too many. They had already filled their slate.  Well, I’ll blog about my close calls!  And here I am.

I thought and thought and settled on two close calls for you. The first I’ll tell you about is “Gwalior.” That’s the city in India where it befell me. The second is “La Carretera del Diablo,” which is deep down in an offbeat corner of Mexico.  That’s Spanish for “The Devil’s Highway.”

Gwallior is little known to us Americans but famous to Indians for its huge and historic and important fort. Lots there to look at and think about and learn from.

This was some 30 years ago. I was on my first trip to India. Two dear Indian friends here in the U.S., Sulekh and Ravi Jain, were going back for a visit. Sulekh was a PhD engineer.  How we became friends is a wonderful story but for another day. I’m pleased to say our friendship is still very much alive.

Anyway, now and then Sulekh would say, “John, one day Ravi and I will l take you to India!”  Ravi is his wife. I thought that was just well-intentioned hot air.

But one day off I flew to India with them. A whole month, as I remember it. We toured far and wide. A spectacular adventure.  At one point Sulekh and Ravi were going to be tied up for a couple of days. Sulekh suggested I take the train to Gwallior. “Fantastic!”  he said.

He arranged to have a young relative accompany me. He’d me my guide and helper. Nice fellow. I don’t recall his name. I’ll call him Suraj.

It was a train ride of four hours or so. Suraj got me to the station in good time.  It was jammed with Indians, men in turbans and women in saris. In that great throng I spotted a lone white man. About 30, tall, in dungarees and sneakers, a huge backpack on the floor by his feet. An American, I’ll bet. I walked right over.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m John. From Massachusetts. Taking the train to Gwallior with my friend here.”

Yes, he was an American. He told me he was taking the same train. Had just finished a full hitch in Peace Corps and was going home the s-l-o-w way. Loved foreign travel. Solo. I marveled at that. I had no idea that one day I too would serve in Peace Corps…and would find out that most Volunteers have a genetic streak to adventure-travel. Just as he was.

The train pulled in.  Many cars.  In one way trains in India are like trains in Europe. A long corridor runs down one side of each car. Not down the center. The cars at the front are first class — they have cabins for four…well, six skinny Indians. The cars at the rear are second class.  Just row after row of wood benches, Suraj told me.

We all got aboard. Suraj and I had a cabin. My new friend headed toward the rear.

Two big toots and we started. There would be several stops. We had the cabin to ourselves. I sat by the window, facing forward. Any others in the cabin would have been traveling backward. Suraj sat by my side. I spent every minute looking out the window. So interesting.

Oh, Ravi, bless her heart, had warned me never to drink faucet water.  Always boiled water, always!  Told me  to buy hot tea from vendors. That way it would be safe. She had given me a bottle full. No longer hot, of course. I took a sip now and then.

About half way, we made a scheduled stop. I spotted a lot of young men outside demonstrating. Wow! They were focusing on our train. Why, I had no idea. Suraj had no idea.  Lots of angry yelling, big scrawled placards, clenched fists. Awful. Scary. We were safe inside.  But some kept coming close. Very close. I saw two approach right below our window. They were trying to crawl under our car. I saw one pull out a wire he had yanked free. The other did the same thing.

Things quieted.  The demonstrators had backed off. Still the train didn’t move. Many minutes went by. Thinking of the ripped out wire, I wondered if other demonstrators had done the same thing. Have they disabled the train? Suraj said he’d go out to the platform to try to find out what this was all about. My bottle was empty now. He would buy me a refill.

I sat alone.  I was worried. How long will we be stuck here?  A long time went by. No Suraj.  Things had quieted a lot. I decided to get off, too. I wanted to check on my Peace Corps friend. Is he okay?  A lot of the demonstrators were still around. They had congregated on the platform side. No yelling now. No chanting. They stared at me, an obvious foreigner. Were muttering.  I was nervous but walked on to the end of the train. No sign of my friend. Saw a big log had been placed across the tracks! Couldn’t spot my friend.

Now 15 or 20 of them appeared and surrounded me. Were yelling something. Angry words. They glowered at me.  The leader, hefty, frowning, came right up. Stuck his face within a foot of my nose. Was yelling something. Shook a fist. His buddies were yelling something. Were making fists. Will one of these guys hit me?  Drive a knife into my side?

Suddenly an older man made his way through them. Waved them back. Spoke angrily to them. They stepped back. He took me by the arm and walked me back to my car. They followed me with their eyes.   I stepped aboard and returned to my cabin. I was so grateful to my Good Samaritan.

But no Suraj! Where the hell is he?!  I sat and waited. It was supposed to be a 10-minute stop. More than an hour had gone by.

Suddenly tumult at the back of the car. It seemed one or two of the demonstrators had gotten aboard.  I didn’t dare look out the door. Were banging on the doors as they came forward. Every door, it seemed. Are they looking for me? The white man? I bolted the door.

They were coming closer. Yelling.  Banging on every door.  They came closer. One banged on mine. I didn’t make a sound. Hate to say so but I was huddled in a corner, my arms coiled around myself. Terrified. He tried my lock. It held. He moved on.  They were still yelling and banging. Then quiet. Seemed they had gotten off. Thank God!

Finally Suraj popped in and handed me my bottle of tea. I yelled at him. “Where have you been?!” He said he had had problems. Was worried about me. Took his seat. I calmed down. Time went by.

Suddenly, with not a toot, the train started. A miracle! I thought of the youth ripping out the wire. I thought others might have been doing the same thing. Thought of the big log across the track. But what about the Peace Corps Volunteer? I never found out.

We had another stop before Gwallior. No demonstrators at this spot. But I was still worried. I told Suraj we were getting off and taking the next train back. He protested. I insisted. We had to wait a long time for a returning train. Got on. No problem. Demonstrators all gone. We made it back safe and sound.

So, I never got to see Gwallior.  A big disappointment. Later Sulekh told me the agitators were demonstrating because state universities were shutting them out. India is made up of rigid social classes. They were in a lower class. Were fed up. This demonstration was state-wide. Never found out if they got any satisfaction.

Well, that was back then. Things have improved. I did go back to India some years later on my around-the-world trip.  No Sulekh and Ravi with me this time. I crossed the whole country from Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta) to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Nearly all of it by train.

Through Delhi the capital again, of course. Went north all the way to ancient Varanasi on the great and sacred Ganges River. No problem. Not a single close call. A great trip.

Hey, maybe my close call on my first trip would have been too long to tell about at The Reboot.

Close call No. 2 — “La Carretera del Diablo”

The Devil’s Highway. Have you heard of it?  Well, l traveled it. If you drove it, you’d recall it, too. It’s a narrow, scary, dangerous road across craggy mountains from Durango to close to Mazatlan on the Pacific. No wonder it’s known as the Devil’s Highway.

This was some 10 years later. I was on my second big solo tour through Mexico. On this one and the previous one I rolled up 15,000 miles down there during two consecutive winters. Winters are mild down there.

Again I was driving my wonderful VW microbus. Sightseeing. Meeting Mexicans well to do and poor and chatting with them in my pitiful pidgin Espagnol. Snapping pictures. And sending back reports to a paper in Connecticut, which was my home sweet home then.

The VW was my wonderful little home on wheels. I’d make and eat my meals in it. Well, most of them. Write up my day’s doings and details in my journal on the same little fold-down table I ate on. Sleep in it.  Quite comfy. Perfect for me.

I was pushing along on the narrow, cliff-hugging blacktopped highway between those two cities.  Alone on the road much of the time.

Now and then I’d pass through a town. Then the highway would become its  main street. That was blacktop, too. All the side streets seemed to be dirt.

In the evening I’d see the lights go on in the humble houses.  Just plain bare bulbs most of the time. This was not touristy Mexico. Anything but.

I’d strike up a little chat whenever I ran into a likely person and they would be as interested in me and my strange wanderings as I was in them.  My Spanish was awful but nobody complained. I thrived on it.

I came into a bigger town with a Pemex gas station. All gas stations were Pemex stations. The government ran them. No competition.  (Just recently private enterprise has been allowed.)  I checked my gas gauge. Was all set. Pushed on. Left all houses behind and found myself on the same two-lane carretera, going uphill now on the narrow, winding road.

The sun was getting low. By one bad curve I spotted four small white crosses. Four persons had been killed in a vehicle accident here. I was familiar with such crosses. They are common on highways in Catholic countries.

Just beyond the crosses, on the same side, I saw a black slope coming down toward the highway. Black because it was solidified lava from long ago. That’s perfect for tonight. I drove in a hundred feet or so – drove up I should say. Turned off the engine, cooked my supper, scribbled in my diary, and readied my bunk.

Then I walked down to look at those crosses. Two men’s names and two women’s. Same date on all four.  Two vehicles must have collided. How awful!  Returned to my VW. It was dark now. Slipped into my sleeping bag and called it a day.

In 30 or 40 minutes I heard a vehicle pull in! I looked out. Its headlights focused on me. And I saw a bright flashlight walking up toward me. And whoever it was had  a revolver pointed at me.  My God! A bandito?! A hard rap on the driver door. What to do?!  I was in my shorts . I scrambled up and sat in the driver’s seat. I had locked the door, of course. Opened the window, but just a hair. Tried to mask my fear.

“Policia! Abierte la ventana!”   I opened it a bit more.

A big guy. Forty or so. Big black mustache. I saw his uniform. Not a bandit. What’s this all about?!

He asked for my driver’s license. “Uno momento!” I said. I had to go back to my pants and pull out my wallet.  I showed him my driver’s license and registration. He focused his flashlight on them. Asked what I was doing here. Put his gun away. I told him I was heading to Mazatlan. Was spending the night here.

On the floor by my seat I had a three-ring binder. It had copies of travel articles I had published. I showed it to him. Pointed to my byline on several. It was the same as the name on my license and registration. He flipped through it. He understood.

“Muy pelligroso, Senor!” He told me.  I understood that — Very dangerous! He explained. Yes, there were bandits around. Thieves. Hungry, grasping fellows who might see me as easy prey. I had to get out of here. “Immediamente!” Right now!

No, I could not continue west. Curves. Cliffs. Too dangerous at night. I had to go back to the town I had just passed.  “Go to the Pemex station. Stay there for the night. You will be safe.”  He looked at his watch.  “But hurry! They will lock up in 50 minutes.”

I thanked him. Felt like giving him a hug. Rushed and dressed. Pulled out. He had started his cruiser. Was waiting for me to leave. Making sure.

I drove as fast as I could down that twisty road. Got to the Pemex.  I explained to an attendant. The only one. He nodded. Told me where to park. Said he was about to put up and lock the chain for the night. No cars could enter. People, yes, but no cars. I’d be chained in too, of course. Said he would then go home. The chain would be taken down at 6 a.m.

I drove as far back in the station’s lot as I could. Didn’t want to attract anybody! Finally went to sleep. I was still worried. Will some bandito walk in and come check me out? Two banditos?  Sleep overtook me. I woke up at dawn. The chain was still up. The attendant showed up. Same guy.

I didn’t need much gas but I tanked up to show my appreciation. And I put a couple of dollars – real American dollars – in his hand. You should have seen his grin! Heard his ”Gracias, Senor, Gracias!”

I started up the long, twisty highway again. Passed those four tragic crosses. Glanced up at my brief campsite and drove on. Silently thanked that officer who had somehow spotted me and checked me out. Warned me. And told me what to do. A very good guy.

Hey, if he hadn’t done that, maybe I too would have wound up with a white cross of my own down there on La Carretera del Diablo!

Well, I didn’t get the chance to talk about this close call either at The Reboot. Maybe the audience would have enjoyed hearing me. I hope you have.

~ ~ ~ ~

Again I look forward to your comments. Do you have a close call of your own to tell me about? I’d like to hear it.








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